One game does not make a season, but there is no doubt the big question for the Vikings heading into 2017 was how their offense would perform. And for at least one game they gave a dominant answer, defeating the New Orleans Saints 29-19 in their season opener Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“Our offense was outstanding,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “The coaches did an outstanding job, the players did a great job executing. I was really proud of the offensive line and how they played. I was really proud of the running back [rookie Dalvin Cook], I thought he made some great runs. [Quarterback Sam] Bradford, obviously, played outstanding.”
Coming in, who would have guessed that Bradford would dominate in a matchup with future Hall of Famer Drew Brees?
Bradford completed 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards and three scores. His 143.0 quarterback rating was the highest mark of his career.
Brees put up decent numbers, finishing 27-for-37 for 291 yards and a score, but 67 of those yards and the touchdown came late in the fourth quarter with the game already well in hand.
And consider this: Bradford posted only the sixth passing game of at least 340 yards by a Vikings quarterback this decade. He accomplished the feat once last season; Matt Cassel did it in 2013; Christian Ponder did it once each in 2012 and 2011; and Brett Favre did it once in 2010. New Orleans has done it a whopping 44 times over that same stretch.
Perhaps Bradford’s most impressive drive came in the second quarter, on a three-play, 74-yard streak down the field: a 35-yard pass to Adam Thielen, a 21-yard pass to Jarius Wright and an 18-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs.
“It was great to see,” Zimmer said of the drive. “If you can get some chunk plays, it really helps, and if you can continue to get the running game going, you get opportunities to convert some chunk plays. Those things were all obviously really big. Sam made some great throws, and the receivers made great catches.”
Bradford was highly efficient in 2016, but very few of his passes were downfield, and the Vikings ultimately finished 8-8 because of many of their troubles on offense. Zimmer was asked if it’s possible that Bradford could be improved by having a full season with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
“I think it helps a lot,” Zimmer said. “Sam made a lot of good checks up there at the line of scrimmage. Pat and him have a very good relationship, they’re able to communicate with one another, and Sam has a lot of freedom at the line of scrimmage.
“I thought, you know, obviously being here the entire time helped a lot, but he got a lot of help tonight. He played great tonight, don’t get me wrong, but he got a lot of help from a lot of people.”
Line holds up just fine
One of the most impressive aspects of the Vikings’ performance was how the offensive line was opening up holes for the running backs and protecting Bradford in ways you didn’t see in 2016.
This from a unit that only played a couple of series together in the preseason.
Zimmer said that coming into Week 1, he had a feeling the line was going to hold up. And it did, giving up only one sack and helping Cook become the first 120-yard rusher for the Vikings since Adrian Peterson in November 2015. Cook finished with 127 yards on 22 carries.
“The offensive line did an outstanding job not only in protection but also in the run game,” Zimmer said. “I thought they did good. They stayed on blocks, they fought guys. You know this team prepared really well this week. They studied, they were focused, they practiced well, and we went out and performed well.”
Zimmer added that he was pleased with the way his three rookie starters played, including center Pat Elflein, the first Vikings rookie to start at center since Mick Tingelhoff. The other rookie starters were Cook and linebacker Ben Gedeon.
“That was good,” Zimmer said. “It shows a good job by the scouts in the offseason and the draft.”
When it came to Cook, who tied for the seventh-most rushing yards in any game by any Vikings rookie, Zimmer said of the second-round pick from Florida State: “I thought he did an outstanding job. I like how he attacks the tackler and gains extra yards after.”
Receivers open it up
The Vikings had big performances all over the field, but their wide receivers were incredible.
Diggs finished with seven receptions on eight targets for 93 yards and two touchdowns while Thielen had nine receptions on 10 targets for 157 yards.
“[Diggs] played well,” Zimmer said. “You know he’s a crafty guy, as is Thielen, and when you have a couple guys who have a chance to do it, and you have a good guy in the middle with [Kyle] Rudolph, I think it opens things up. But again the running game causes all of these things to happen.”
Diggs had his second career two-touchdown game, his first coming in December 2015 in a 38-17 home victory over Chicago. He only had three touchdown receptions all of last season.
When it came to Thielen’s play, Zimmer added that he likes his physicality.
“He’s a tough, competitive guy,” Zimmer said. “He made some nice, big plays, some great catches. Really, I’m just proud of this football team.”
Red zone success
The team also made a big improvement in a key area it wanted to address: scoring in the red zone, and stopping teams in the red zone.
The Vikings scored three touchdowns in six red-zone trips, while the Saints managed only one TD in five trips.
“That was a big emphasis in the offseason, was third down in the red zone on both sides of the ball, and we converted offensively and we stopped them defensively,” Zimmer said. “Those were all big things in the game. To hold Drew Brees to no touchdowns until the last part of the ballgame there, I thought it was outstanding.”
Now the Vikings head on the road for their second game when they travel to Pittsburgh, where they haven’t won since 1995. Zimmer knows he will face another solid opponent in coach Mike Tomlin’s squad.
“We have another Hall of Fame quarterback [Ben Roethlisberger] coming up, very, very good offensive team, a perennial playoff team,” Zimmer said. “We’re going to have to go on the road and play a good football team.”
Even though the Steelers had to hold on to win at Cleveland 21-18 Sunday, there’s no question Roethlisberger and receiver Antonio Brown will present another big challenge for the Vikings defense. But who knows, maybe it will be their offense that surprises, again.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org